ONE of the city’s best-loved cultural institutions, the Oxford Playhouse is in trouble.

After 16 weeks of closure – the longest for 30 years – it is now facing a fight for its survival as dramatic as anything to appear on its hallowed stage.

The Beaumont Street theatre, which prior to its closure in March had been achieving record sales, relies on earned income for 87 per cent of its turnover and has one of the lowest subsidy rates in the UK.

But while the rest of the country gradually ‘unlocks’, the Playhouse cannot. And even when it is allowed to reopen, it faces dramatically reduced income due to social distancing and a shortage of productions to be staged.

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A Playhouse Plays On fundraising campaign has already raised over £100,000 in donations but, to survive, it is planning redundancies affecting up to 20 per cent of its 50 contracted staff.

With 80 per cent of staff furloughed, the theatre will continue to use the Government’s Job Retention Scheme until October 31, with only a handful of staff kept on to plan for eventual reopening and to run its public engagement programme. To save further money, all operations will be suspended in August.

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In happier times - with Sir Ian McKellen

Efforts are also continuing to secure financial support, with an application to Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, and plans to generate cash by hiring out the premises.

Director Louise Chantal said: “When we made the unprecedented decision to close on that Monday evening after the Prime Minister told the nation to ‘avoid public spaces’, I had no comprehension of the scale of this crisis. None of us did.

“Four months later, we’re still completely unclear about when we might re-open. This week the Government declared that theatres would be allowed to open from July 4 ‘but without live performance’.

“I am not quite sure what kind of theatre involves non-living performance, but it won’t be appearing on the Oxford Playhouse stage in the coming months.

“There are excellent venues in the city which specialise in showing performances without a pulse – they’re called cinemas, and usually operate on a socially-distanced capacity of 20 per cent of seats sold. The Playhouse needs to sell 70 per cent of our 632 seats to cover our costs.

“An even harder decision than the one to close was the one about the limited number of redundancies that will need to be made.

“The fact it’s less than 20 per cent of our workforce will be no consolation to the hard-working, talented staff whose jobs may be affected (or their families).

“The Playhouse is not bankrupt – the last two years have seen record-breaking sales which have helped shore us up through this storm. Cutting costs now is future-proofing the charity for the unknown years ahead. We need to be a little smaller for a while, but smaller is better than gone.”

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She added: “We’re not alone. Theatres up and down the country are announcing large-scale redundancies and extended closures – some permanently shutting their doors.

“It is reported over 70 per cent of theatres will run out of money by Christmas, when of course we should be putting on the most lucrative shows of the year. We’re hoping to be able to present a 2020 pantomime, but it can’t cost the usual £400,000 to put on and it’s unlikely to play to 36,000 people. We’ll make a final decision at the beginning of September.

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“The reason the Playhouse isn’t in the same dire position as some is simple – our audience. The loyalty, support and generosity shown by our audience through all of this has been both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

“Over 90 per cent of the people we contact to offer a refund on cancelled tickets are donating some or all of their ticket monies to the Playhouse’s survival.

“The Playhouse Plays On campaign has already raised over £100,000 – a staggering amount given the current economic uncertainty. Most of this sum is made up of thousands of small gifts, showing just how much live theatre means to our audience and the wider city. We could not feel more grateful, or more proud of Oxford. Thank you. Yet we will need more support to survive.

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Before the storm: Sir Ian McKellen with the team

“The whole theatre industry is waiting on tenterhooks for a decision on extended government aid to mitigate the reduced capacities and nervous audiences to come. Many of our producing partners have cancelled tours, meaning we may have gaps in the programme for some time.”

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She urged supporters to donate and to write to their MP demanding an Urgent Question be tabled in the House to support extending financial aid to the cultural sector.”

She added: “If you’ve ever enjoyed a film or television show, be it from Netflix or CBBC, the chances are the talent involved was nurtured by British theatre. We need you now more than ever.”